Study: Trying to Debunk Vaccine Myths Can Backfire

When vaccine skeptics are presented with statements about the benign nature of vaccines, they double down on their skepticism rather than softening their bias.

Study: Trying to Debunk Vaccine Myths Can Backfire

When vaccine skeptics are presented with statements about the benign nature of vaccines backed up by extensive medical research, they double down on their skepticism rather than softening their bias.


In an experiment conducted at Dartmouth College, a quarter of 822 individuals surveyed expressed concern that the influenza vaccine could actually cause influenza. When that quarter was exposed to medical information from the Centers for Disease Control demonstrating the safety of the vaccine, they responded by declaring their refusal to get vaccinated.

Big Think's own Simon Oxenham commented on the study at the British Psychological Society:

"A psychological principle that might explain this behavior is motivated reasoning: we are often open to persuasion when it comes to information that fits with our beliefs, while we are more critical or even outright reject information that contradicts our world view."

Understanding the brain's evolutionary function sheds light on this apparent defect in our ability to reason clearly and without undue bias. The brain's main function for millions of years, explains David Ropeik, was to aid us in very basic survival. And while reacting based on immediate feelings and emotions helped us survive in the bush, we are not automatically well-equipped to handle more complex problems:

"[The brain] is a survival machine and it plays a lot of tricks with the facts in order to get us to tomorrow. That worked pretty well when the risks were lions and tigers and bears and the dark — oh my. It’s not as good now when we need to rationalize and reason and use the facts more with the complicated risks we face in a modern age."

Malcolm Gladwell live | How to re-examine everything you know

Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to your calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


Keep reading Show less

Humans evolved for punching, study confirms

University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.

Image source: durantelallera/Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
  • The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
  • If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Keep reading Show less

To be a great innovator, learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty

Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.

David McNew/Getty Images
Personal Growth
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was America's first female self-made millionaire.
Keep reading Show less

Study: Private prisons result in more inmates, longer sentences

The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • After adopting strict sentencing laws in the '80s and '90s, many states have turned to for-profit prisons to handle growing prison populations.
  • A new study in Labour Economics found that privately-run prisons correlate with a rise in incarceration rates and sentence lengths.
  • While evidence is mixed, private prisons do not appear to improve recidivism or cost less than state-run facilities.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Videos

    The art of asking the right questions

    What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast